Greece proclaimed a new willingness to compromise with its international creditors on Monday, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that time was running out for an reform-for-aid deal to keep the country in the euro.
Just three days after Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras rejected the latest proposal from the EU and IMF as “absurd”, the Greek government said it is ready to negotiate a settlement acceptable to both sides by the end of this month – when Greece’s bailout programme expires and the country faces default on its debts.
For all the more positive mood music, a European Union official reported “no new developments” in the hunt for a deal under which the creditors would resume aid to Athens in return for promises of more austerity.
Athens and Brussels exchanged proposals last week in the hope of breaking an impasse that if unresolved, could force Greece out of the euro zone, an event that could shake financial markets and even the global economy.
Merkel, who is due to meet Tsipras along with French President Francois Hollande on Wednesday, stressed she wanted Greece to remain part of the currency bloc.
But speaking after a summit of the Group of Seven industrialised nations in Germany, she said: “There isn’t much time left. Everyone is working intensively.”
U.S. President Barack Obama said after the meeting in the Bavarian Alps that the Greeks need to make “some tough political choices” and both sides must show flexibility.
Hollande underlined that to reach the end of June deadline, a deal had to be nailed down soon. Tsipras has called for broad-based political negotiations, but Hollande made clear the EU is more interested in the details of what he will promise.
“We must quickly have, in the coming hours or days, technical talks to narrow positions and to replace the proposals Greece cannot accept with alternative measures,” Hollande said after the G7 meeting.
As he spoke, European Economics Commissioner Pierre Moscovici held talks in Brussels with Greece’s chief negotiator Euclid Tsakalotos and minister of state Nikos Pappas.
Following his uncompromising stand on Friday, Tsipras has risked losing what remaining friends he had in Brussels.
With European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker expressing open exasperation, Greek government spokesman Gabriel Sakellaridis signalled a flexibility that was absent when Tsipras launched his broadside at the Greek parliament.
“Definitely our proposal is the starting point,” Sakellaridis told a news conference, but added: “The target of the Greek delegation is to explore the possibility of an agreement that will satisfy both sides.”
Even Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, who fell out badly with his German counterpart Wolfgang Schaeuble earlier in the negotiations, joined in the spirit. He described talks he held with Schaeuble in Berlin on Monday as “very helpful”, adding that they had taken place in an “extremely friendly manner”.
“It is a duty for us politicians to try to find an agreement. This is absolutely essential for the European Union,” he said.
Opinion polls show the Greek public want above all to stay in the euro and are willing to accept compromises in a deal with the creditors to resume the funding that has kept the country afloat since it almost went bankrupt in 2010.
However, the EU and IMF are insisting that yet more reform and austerity be imposed on a population that has already suffered a dramatic fall in living standards and soaring unemployment during an economic depression.
Tsipras told parliament on Friday that “the Greek government cannot consent to absurd proposals”. Earlier, Athens delayed a 300 million euro repayment due to the IMF, a highly unusual step that rattled financial markets although it does not yet signal a formal default.
An EU official travelling with Juncker at the G7 summit said he had still not received any Greek counter-proposals that Tsipras promised last Wednesday to items he objected to in the creditors’ proposal.
“There are absolutely no new developments,” the official said after Juncker accused Tsipras on Sunday of failing to keep his word, misrepresenting the creditors’ offer and misleading his parliament.
One official from Germany, where public opinion is deeply hostile to Greek demands for aid, gave a blunter assessment. “Juncker was really enthusiastic about Tsipras and now he’s depressed. We were never enthusiastic about him and so we’re not depressed now,” the official said.
Athens badly needs the creditors to release remaining funds from the bailout programme to meet debt repayments by the end of June but Tsipras told parliament he would not accept an agreement that did not include the promise of debt relief.
The European Central Bank, which is authorising emergency funding for Greek banks to offset huge deposit withdrawals by anxious savers, said any departure from the euro would not cause the kind of international havoc that threatened the bloc after Athens first ran into trouble.
Speaking in Canada, ECB Governing Council member Christian Noyer also said Athens had only “a matter of days” as any agreement would need to be approved by various European legislatures before the end of June.
Syriza won power earlier this year on promises to win a reduction in Greece’s debt mountain and to walk away from the 240 billion euro bailout programme.
But Sakellaridis left open the possibility of another extension to the programme, which has already been extended once till the end of this month. Athens aimed “to have a lot of political negotiations through all this time until the end of the month so that there is a positive outcome,” he said.